Monday, January 28, 2008

Faith and panacea

This is my column today.

Last Friday, Fr. Fernando Suarez, the healing priest, was in the bank that I worked for.
It was supposed to be an “exclusive-for-members” religious affair organized by the congregation behind the annual Sto. Niño exhibit. But as many among us know by now, Father Suarez is a huge phenomenon in a country that seems to be in desperate need of healing. There is no such thing as “private” and “exclusive” when it comes to matters of life and death.

Thus, any affair where the healing priest makes an appearance is bound to be a very public, very messy affair.

A few days ago, traffic at Edsa was hopelessly jammed as throngs of people tried to make their way to the Santuario de San Antonio at Forbes Park to attend one of the healing masses of the famous healing priest. We’ve all read news stories about how very sick people risked whatever little energy they have left, waiting for hours and hours in very congested areas, just to be touched and healed.

I was particularly taken aback by the story of that very sick young boy who was hooked up to an oxygen tank that eventually ran out while waiting for Father Suarez. We’ve seen images on television and on YouTube of very, very sick people in stretchers and in wheelchairs being perilously hoisted up among the throngs of the faithful just so they can receive healing from the priest. In moments like those, one can’t help marvelling at the wisdom of the motivations of the people who brought all those sick people to those venues.

Truly, faith and desperation are oftentimes beyond the realm of reason and logic. The things we do in the name of faith!

The scene at the bank last Friday was something straight from the movie “Himala” as people from all walks of life and with all kinds of afflictions—ranging from the physical and the emotional to the spiritual and psychological—mobbed the healing priest.

Occasions like these where faith and hope are so palpable one can almost touch them are powerful lessons in spirituality. It is in occasions like these when one cannot help submitting to the realization that faith can indeed move mountains; that it is belief in something beyond our own selves that gives meaning to our existence.

Unfortunately, it is also on occasions like these when we come face to face with another ugly realization: Faith and desperation also bring out the worst in many among us.

A friend of mine who has been acting out the roles of chauffeur cum caregiver cum chaperone to a very sick aunt with stage four cancer narrated to me very disturbing vignettes that have surrounded their efforts to follow the trail of Father Suarez. His aunt is wheelchair-bound and is obviously sick.

One would presume that people would give way to his aunt in these healing sessions. But as it turns out, they’ve experienced all kinds of uncivil behavior from everyone else. People push, shove, and generally throw courtesy to the air in these sessions.

The experience, as my friend relates, gives new dimension to the cliché “survival of the fittest.”
What is disheartening, he notes, is the way very physically fit and able people who are obviously not in critical situations elbow everyone else to receive attention ahead of the very sick. What is even more disturbing is the way people with political connections end up at the head of the line, sometimes being allowed special audiences with the healing priest in private rooms.

At Forbes Park, for example, he was quite agitated to overhear some wealthy parishioners strutting around in their diamonds and their designer getups complaining loudly about how their precious Santuario has been overrun by “unworthy” people. If we come to think about it, it should have been an occasion for people who claim piety and religiosity to draw reflection from—after all, it is not every day that Forbes Park opens its doors to the sick and the poor. But the message was lost on some people. A very popular personage was even overheard huffing around that that particular healing session was supposed to be only for the parishioners of Forbes Park.

Before you castigate me for imagining that a caste system exists even in spiritual sessions, let me stress that I am simply sharing facts as my friend saw them.

Of course these things are probably beyond the control of Father Suarez. I am sure that the healing priest only has the best intentions. He can’t be faulted for the fact that many people seem to believe that the number of times one attends his healing sessions translate into better chances of healing and recovery. But like I said, faith is a very difficult concept to make sense of particularly because it happens to be “resolute.” In other words, if one believes in something with all his or her heart, nothing can sway that person to believe otherwise.

I’ve tried to explain to my friend that while Father Suarez may have the gift of healing, it is really faith that “heals.” I’ve also tried to share with my friend supposed scientific “theories” behind the healing phenomena, mostly about the placebo effect and the power of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the psychological concept that says healing is the result of the power of one’s belief that he or she would be healed. In the end, it is not the healer who heals, it is the person who heals himself or herself.

I’ve also attempted to convince my friend that there was probably no need to expose his aunt to further aggravations and the daunting task of braving the elements just to be physically present in all of Father Suarez’s healing sessions. After all, bundling up all those medical equipment in their van and having to spend all those hours in traffic and in very congested areas were no joke. Above all, it must be taking its toll on his aunt’s failing health. But he told me his aunt’s faith in Father Suarez was so powerful that she was willing to face the supreme irony of it all: Risking death just to be healed.

I don’t quite know what to make of this phenomenon. An anthropologist friend of mine thinks that the Father Suarez phenomenon and all the other similar phenomena that is sweeping our country (it’s not just Father Suarez, although he seems more credible; we’ve also been witness to other less credible and plausible Pied Pipers including that one who brought in busloads of people from Bicol to Luneta recently) is reflective of the level of desperation among our people.

He thinks that we as a people are in dire need of faith that we seem to latch on to anything that offers something we can believe in. Perhaps. But if we come to think about it, this phenomenon is also reflective of the absence or the diminishing level of faith among us. If we come to think about it, we don’t need healing priests to heal us if we truly believe in the powers of our God.

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